August 2004 issue

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Much of Portugal's charm lies in its traditional way of life - fresh, delicious food, a slow pace of living, outdoor markets and a friendly population that enjoys celebrations are all facets of life in Portugal that appeal to its international visitors.

The scenery throughout the country is also inspiring, from the raw appeal of the beaches and elegant proud cities such as Porto and Lisbon to the rural charm of the interior of the country, where small villages are linked by dusty roads through unspoilt countryside.

The first port of call for many visitors to Portugal is Lisbon, which became the capital city in 1255 after being captured from the Moors by Portugal's first king in 1147. Lisbon grew up around the impressive Castelo de São Jorge, a castle and fortress that is now somewhat delapidated, but still commands impressive views of the city from the hill on which it stands. Visitors can make the journey up to the castle by foot or, alternatively, enjoy a ride up to the summit in one of the city's yellow electric trams.

The Alfama district below the castle, with its narrow streets meandering down to the edge of the river, is one of the city's oldest neighbourhoods, where vendors sell fresh food on the streets and children play in the maze of alleys.

Meanwhile, the hub of the city centre is the Baixa district, which has many restaurants and cafés leading down to the River Tejo. The area is pedestrianised in many places, allowing visitors to easily appreciate the city's architecture and fading colourful buildings.

Further up the coast in the north of the country is Porto, also known as Oporto, which is sometimes overlooked by international visitors. Famous for its port wine and football team, it is a charming city with winding hilly streets as well as broad flat avenues leading out to the suburbs. The city was originally called Cale and later Portucale, from which the name Portugal was derived.

Due to its location, the city has always been of commercial importance in Mediterranean trading routes and has experienced many power struggles in its history. Inhabitants of Oporto are known as tripeiros, which literally means 'tripe eaters', because of a story that the city's population gave up their meat to the country's expeditionary forces who went on to conquer Ceuta on the northern coast of Morroco in 1415. One of the city's most traditional dishes is tripas à moda do Porto.

There are, however, many other culinary delights to sample in Portugal with the country's typical food based around fresh ingredients and often involving olive oil and spices in the cooking process. Sardines are a traditional option while fish and meat are sometimes cooked together, such as in the traditional dish, Porco à Alentejana, which combines pork with clams. In the southern region of Alentejo, from where this dish hails, other specialities include various soups and egg cakes.

Alentejo itself is relatively unpopulated with expansive plains in the south of the region leading to magnificent Atlantic beaches on the west coast. The region is interspersed with grand castles and walled cities, wheat fields and olive groves, as well as some of the most beautiful towns in Portugal, such as Évora - a walled town with remarkably narrow one-way streets and the Temple of Diana, which dates from the Roman era.

Further south, the Algarve is one of the best known tourist areas of Portugal, populated each summer by many Europeans who are drawn to the white sand beaches and blue waters of the coast. Quite unlike the rest of the country, it is nevertheless a refreshing place to unwind, with colourful fishing villages and wild beaches. The region was the last to be conceded to the Portuguese by the Moors who were conquered here in 1292. Traces of their occupation can still be noted in the architecture of the region.

In stark contrast to the beaches of the south is the region known as Beiras, to the north of Lisbon, which is characterised by pine forests and mountains, including the Serra da Estrela mountain range. Its highest peak, Torre, is snow-covered for much of the year. As well as such dramatic landscape, there are said to be healing waters in the region and many spa towns can be found dotted around the countryside along with a number of convents and monasteries. The Buçaco Forest has been a retreat for monks since the 6th century.

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